A miscellany of topics

By , 28 November 2008 7:25 pm

This week, I was intending to take a brief break from discussing cultural matters to share some local news. However I cannot resist making the point that it seems that no American president will be elected unless he (or she) talks openly and comfortably about God, while no British Prime Minister will be elected if he (or she) does. I would like to think that there has been progress in this area but I’m afraid Tony Blair has rather ruined this because he did bring God into matters and now his stock is very low indeed. I think it will be some time before any politician here has the courage even to say ‘God bless you’ at the end of any talk to the nation. By the way, here is another difference: Americans clearly have not the slightest problem in confidently asking the Almighty to look favourably upon America. Indeed their tone is sometimes so confident that one is inclined to suspect that a certain overlap exists in their minds between the Kingdom of Heaven and the United States of America. In contrast, Britons of the 21st century would never dream of invoking the Almighty in the political arena. Americans get embarrassed when, in the context of politics people do not mention God; we get embarrassed when they do.

And now to family news. The first item of news is that two weeks ago our younger son Mark got married to a delightful young lady called Alice in central London where they both work. I don’t think they would mind if I attached a photograph.

So we travelled up from the provinces and stayed a couple of nights in London in order to attend. It was a great time and the Christian witness took centre stage. In fact the sermon was outspokenly and unashamedly evangelistic and took as its basis the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (‘bridesmaids’? there are hard issues of cultural equivalence here). The fact that both our sons are happily married raises the interesting question as to whether ‘parenting’ is now over for us. In one sense the answer is ‘yes’ but I suppose we probably continue in an advisory role until such time as we are senile. Oh yes, and young Simeon turned up to the wedding looking every bit the normal three-month-old baby. He seems to be responding well to the daily hormonal supplements.

The second piece of news is to do with books. No, I haven’t sold the film rights to Lamb among the Stars; I think that may be a longer haul than I had expected. But I am signing a contract with Hodders to co-write a short book with the British evangelist J. John centred on the parable of Prodigal Son. Of course a lot has already been written on this but we are hoping to come at it from a fresh but authentic angle. I have a lot of Lebanese anecdotes which clarify matters and bring some of the issues into sharper focus. Anyway the nice thing about Hodders is that they get their books out into the secular market; here they differ from the specifically Christian book companies who seem to be fishing in the ever smaller pond of Christian book readers. Once I get this out of the way, all being well in May, I want to talk to them about future fiction projects. So it’s no television for me for the next five months.

Anyway I have a sermon to finish for our Chinese Fellowship in Swansea so must dash. The problem is that I feel it incumbent upon me to e-mail the text to the translator beforehand; she is very good but I think it’s helpful that she has a chance to read it all through first.

Every blessing


On why this small island is so very odd

By , 21 November 2008 9:22 pm

It would seem self-evident that Americans (and here I mean inhabitants of the United States; Canadians are somewhat different creatures) and Brits are very close to each other. We share a common heritage, seem to have similar aspirations and (for the most part) possess a common language. It would seem equally self-evident that such links ought to be even closer between evangelicals. After all, we are all children of a heavenly kingdom and have a shared unity in Christ. Yet in my 30-odd years as a Christian I have come across frequent occasions where there has been substantial confusion and disappointment as both sides trip up over very real differences. One reason for these confrontations is something I touched on last week; each side misreads the other as being its mirror image when the reality is otherwise.

Now I promised that I would tackle the troubled issue of why British evangelicals are extremely uneasy with American Republicanism/conservatism. I cannot here explore all of this. Indeed today I want to simply point out some of the things that make Britain what it is. Now I am no social scientist and this is a fairly hastily constructed blog so please forgive me if I make some major oversimplifications. Equally can I make it absolutely plain that I’m not in the business of saying we Brits are better than Americans? All I am saying is that there are some very deep differences and it probably is a good idea for all sides to appreciate them.

Anyway let me suggest there are at least four major factors that make us different from Americans.

1) The British are fundamentally wary of radical politics, whether of the left or the right
One part of this is ecclesiastical and reflects the fact that the Church of England ended up occupying the uneasy middle ground between the Reformed and the Catholic churches. Another part is no doubt due to the fact that the fairly regular upheavals over on the continent (with the resultant dismal trickle of refugees arriving on our shores) have constantly reminded us that most political revolutions come with a very high price tag. We have been badly scared by (on the left) the notorious French Revolutionary experiment of the 18th century and (on the on the right) by Hitler’s rise and demise. The result is a deep cultural caution which generates the irony that in some ways we are actually more conservative than most US Republicans.

2) In the UK evangelicals do not possess any large-scale idealism
It is widely noted that when American Christians start becoming lyrical about their great schemes for the improvement of the world, bringing progress to all and ensuring global godliness, any Brits can generally be seen quietly tiptoeing out of the room. There are many reasons for this. One is that in the 17th century what we might class as biblical Christians did indeed have large-scale political aspirations and in a revolution undergirded by theology seized power in the English Civil War. Yet the Puritan Republic that was the Commonwealth was not a success and within 20 years Britain’s experiment with radical nonconformism was at an end. We have long memories and no one since has really wanted to repeat Cromwell’s great adventure. It is probably also true that at this point anyone with what we might today call a politically directed evangelicalism faith headed over to America. We lost our visionaries. The result is that in Britain evangelicals do not fantasise of building a city on a hill shedding light on a dark world. If we dream of anything, it is sitting round a warm fire with the curtains drawn while outside the storm rages. Indeed sometimes, far from dreaming, we are merely content not to have nightmares.

3) Our lack of space forces social survival strategies.
I think there are important issues to do with Britain’s small and rather overcrowded nature. In the States there has been until recently enough space that if you don’t get along with someone you could simply harness up the wagon and head west. We have no such luxury here. We have to coexist. I am convinced that this not just encourages us to seek toleration rather than confrontation but also to see things in terms of shades of grey rather than black and white. It may even be that the famous British humour is in fact a defence mechanism to handle the fact that we must live with those whom we dislike.

4) We are both somewhat weary and wary of Empire.
We have had our time as a global superpower; it was good while it lasted but we are still counting the cost in every sense. As with my comment on idealism, we hold no large-scale aspirations other than a) to survive and b) pay the bills.

These are generalities that I throw out as debating points. Next week I want to talk about some family news and then I will do my best to discuss more specifically some of the problems that we have with American republicanism. But I hope this has helped you understand a little bit where we come from.

Have a good week


The problem of proximity

By , 14 November 2008 9:04 pm

Well last week’s blog raised a real storm didn’t it? What to me seemed fairly cautious comments on Obama-mania appeared to have annoyed the man’s supporters and detractors alike. The fact that either you (or I) so badly misjudged things is actually profoundly revealing; there are major cultural differences between Britain and the States. It has occurred to me that over the next few weeks I might explore something of these differences, that have been exacerbated by the election of Barrack Obama. But before I do, I want to lay some groundwork by pointing out that a peculiar problem exists when you get two very different things that appear the same.

When you compare two organisations or countries it is tempting to be lazy and look merely at the surface. So for instance the alien might wander into both a Catholic church and an evangelical Protestant church and assume that the cleric leading the service was functionally identical and that any differences between a priest and a pastor were merely a matter of words. Now I suspect most readers of this blog will not need me to point out that actually any similarities conceal fundamental differences. A classic example which I hope will not offend is that it is all too tempting to look at Islam and Christianity and see in both cases a central figure, Jesus/Mohammed, and a holy book, the Bible/Quran. What more natural than to assume they are functionally the same? Yet in reality this is profoundly misleading. The Christian view of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God and the Eternal Word is actually far closer to how the Moslem sees the Quran. (Incidentally, some Moslems say the Quran was uncreated; a view disputed by others because it comes perilously close to the blasphemous attribution of the properties of God to something else.) Conversely, in Islam Mohammed (the earthly vessel through whom God reveals his word to mankind) is far closer in functional terms to the Bible (the earthly vessel through whom… well, you get the idea). Appearances can be deceptive.

Now I mention these cases (and I’m sure you could multiply them) because it is all too easy to see parallels and similarities within the British and American system that, at depth, do not actually exist. And this is often the source of some friction. For instance Americans often assume that, in contrast to the extraordinary reverence for the Stars and Stripes in the USA, the British are culpably careless about their own national flag. (Readers across the Atlantic may be interested to know that I have not the slightest idea where I could purchase a Union Jack even if I wanted to.) The fact is that the national flag in Britain and the States represents something totally different. In functional terms, the British equivalent of the Stars and Stripes is actually her Majesty the Queen. She, not the flag, is the emblem of ultimate authority, historical tradition and the validity of the British state. Even at the most basic level we are very different. Someone repeated the old quip that we are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. That is never truer than when we think we are talking about the same thing.

This is very much a precursor to a blog in which – if courage has not failed me – I will try to point out why the British, as a whole, are somewhat uneasy with the Republican Party. Stay tuned…

And so victory was won…

By , 7 November 2008 7:51 pm

Even over here the event of the week has been the election of the new American president. I’m aware that many of my readers will have voted for the other side and quite a few will be sick to death of the whole thing. It certainly seems to have been going on for ever.

Like most people in the UK I was happy to see Obama elected, partly on account of his personal qualities and partly to draw a line under the dreadful Bush years. I must also say that many of the much touted virtues of the Republican pair (being either a Vietnam War veteran or adept at shooting large furry mammals) did not cross the Atlantic with the same attraction that they have in the States. Yet I have to say on Wednesday morning I was not ecstatic. The fact is I remembered Blair’s equally stunning victory in 1997 over a similarly entrenched and dilapidated Conservative party. There was then a golden dawn of hope filled with an extraordinary euphoria; yet before long the style had evaporated away revealing a minimal substance and the result has been a bitter aftertaste. Now barely ten years on Blair is now one of the most despised figures on the British political scene. (Actually he is rarely here; it is not just prophets who are without honour in their own country.) So time will tell with Barak Obama, but the good book is wise: ‘Put not your trust in Princes’ (Psalm 146:3, AV).

Indeed I feel the first shadow has already fallen with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff. I am tempted to comment on the unease already emanating from those parts of the Middle East that had been most positive about Obama’s election, about Rahm Emanuel’s links with Zionism and the way he is being acclaimed in Israel as ‘their man in the White House’. It is certainly clear that he has strong loyalties towards the preservation and expansion of the State of Israel; you can read Wikipedia for all the details. I do not want to say much more on the subject. One problem is that even to make the slightest comment on such matters is to run the risk of being considered anti-Semitic. Of course, it is not his Jewishness that is the issue but his Zionism. Another problem is that it is to run the risk of encouraging the numerous lunatics (and there are many on the web) who blame Israel for all the world’s evils, from a ‘Holocaust that never happened’ to 9/11 itself. Excuse me if I distance myself from that lot. However, I do hope that when Rahm Emanuel’s duty to the United States conflicts with his duty to the State of Israel (as it will), it is the former, not the latter, that wins out.

Yet even if we lay this aside there are issues. If you read the commentators – and I have read many – Rahm Emanuel is variously described as ‘scary‘, ‘ferocious’, ‘profane’, ‘vicious’, ‘an attack dog’ and ‘out of a Mafia movie’. This all seems at odds with the image of a gentle, vaguely Christian, consensus politics that Barack Obama set out as his target in the campaign. Or did he? Or was that me reading into Obama what I wanted to see? Perhaps it is here that the real ability of a modern politician lies. They know – as we know – that in the information age you can’t really become all things to all people. But perhaps you can become something of a mirror or a projection screen onto which people throw the image that they want. Perhaps the master trick of the modern politicians is to make us, not them, the agent of deception.

To end let me reportedly the comment of a delightful colleague who is a saintly but slightly otherworldly Christian. On the morning of November 5 she came to get some coffee, and said with wide-eyed genuine surprise. ‘I’ve just seen a photo of this Obama fellow. And do you know? He’s black.’

Have a good week.

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